There are certain places in this world that feel as if they exist outside of time. Or perhaps they exist inside of time but move much slower than the world around them. As I stepped through the doorway into the inner courtyard of Weingut Nikolaihof, a stones throw from the Danube, and saw the morning light filtering down through the century-old linden tree, the world narrowed down to this quiet bounded space. Gravel crunched under my feet, and there was a stillness as I gazed up at the bell tower that spoke of the building's storied past as part of a monastery.
That moment of stillness didn't last long, however. The morning quiet was quickly broken by the excited yammering of an enthusiastic Daschund named Lumpi who made it clear that I was a guest in his domain. A domain, I might add, that has been under the supervision of a Daschund named Lumpi for 16 generations. Lumpi means "troublemaker" and I was receiving a greeting from the 16th incarnation of that spirit under a tree that was older than the country of Austria. A fairly fitting welcome to the oldest winery in Austria, whose roots go back to the beginnings of the region's earliest recorded history.
Actually, the courtyard's roots go back even farther than recorded history. "The monks chose this pace to build their church because it was a Celtic holy place," says Nikolaus Saas, referencing the ancient Halstatt people who ranged across central europe between 800 and 600 BCE.
"The altar of the earliest churches was just where you are standing," says Saas, who goes on to point out the remnants of a Roman wall, preserved by those who turned the building into a military fortress sometime in the 5th century, shortly before it became a monastery. The Romans, as they did everywhere, cultivated grapes and made wine. The Germanic monks who settled in the wake of the Roman Empire's collapse continued that tradition, and by 470 AD (the earliest written record we possess) the monastery owned a vineyard named Im Weingebirge. As far as anyone can tell, this is the earliest mention of a specific vineyard by name anywhere in Europe.
Weingut Nikolaihof continues to make wine from this vineyard, which bears the same name, 1542 years later.
In 985 AD, this small monastery was dedicated to St. Nikolas, and became a seat of monastic power from which the church spread its influence up and down the Wachau valley, including the monastery of Stift Gottweig, which eventually became the epicenter of the regions monastic power base.
The beautiful courtyard, and the building that surrounds it, in which the entire Saas family continues to live, date back to the 15th century.
"In 1803, the emperor closed the St. Nikolas monastery as part of his secularization of the empire, and my family bought it in 1894," says Saas. "We are only a small part of its history today. Our mission is to protect it and preserve it for the next generation."
Saas' great grandfather bought the house as a country retreat for his family, along with much of the monastery's farmlands. "That's how we survived much of the bad times," says Saas, describing the typical mixed farming, wine growing and animal husbandry that marked most of the family estates in the Wachau in the early 20th Century.
"My dad inherited the winery in 1960 when his father passed away," says Saas, and like many of his generation after the war, his father decided to focus exclusively on winemaking.
"We couldn't afford any of the chemicals," says Saas, "so we figured out how to do without." In 1971, Saas' mother, Christine, who was trained in Anthroposophy and Medicine, began to incorporate Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophy-based biodynamic thinking to the winery's farming.
"In order to become biodynamic all we had to do was simply start using a few preparations," says Nikolaus Saas. Thanks to his mother's early adoption of these techniques, Nikolaihof may well be the first Biodynamic wine estate in Europe, which would necessarily mean that they'd also be the first in the entire world.
Nikolaus' father retired from winemaking duties in 1985, handing the day-to-day winery operations over to the younger Saas, who studied winemaking for three years at Germany's famous Geisenheim university before dropping out to return to the family estate.
"I'm not really the school type," admits Saas, "I'd rather be working in the winery.
If I thought the 5th century Roman wall in the courtyard was impressive, I didn't exactly have words for the 4th century Roman wine cellar that still holds the massive oak barrels in which Saas patiently ages the family's wines, sometimes for as long as 15 years before bottling.
Saas continues to refine the winemaking traditions that have been passed down from father to son through four generations. As one might expect for practitioners of biodynamics, all of the winemaking is done under fairly rustic conditions, with little temperature control, natural yeasts, and minimal additions of sulfur dioxide.
"I still get the benefit of my dad's fifty years of experience," notes Saas, who also says his mother continues to be very involved in the winery as well. But as both of his parents begin to slow down in retirement, the winery has gradually become the domain of Saas and his girlfriend Gudrun.
Not entirely content to simply inherit a set of traditions, Saas has been bringing his own ideas to the operation, including most notably the refurbishment and use of the estate's 400-year old, massive medieval wine press. Made from one massive elm tree, this incredible museum piece is the largest (let alone the largest operational) wine press of its kind in Austria. Saas is so pleased with the gentle extraction he gets from the press he will be using it for more and more of his wines moving forward.
Nikolaihof now farms about 50 acres in the Wachau, on both sides of the Danube, including a new vineyard called Klausberg from which they began to bottle wine in 2005.
The estate produces about 9000 cases of wine, primarily of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling, but with some other interesting wines thrown in, including a single varietal Neuburger, a Gewurztraminer, and a traditional white blend of many regional grapes.
There are many things that make the wines of Nikolaihof unique, from the persistent use of large, ancient oak casks, to eschewing fining and filtration whenever possible. Perhaps most unusually, however, Nikolaihof makes a habit of aging some cuvees for extended periods of time in large casks. Up until recently, this kind of extended aging was restricted to a set of bottlings named Vinothek, which saw at least 14 years of extended aging before bottling. Increasingly, however, Saas is keeping wines longer and longer in cask. "I taste them all the time," he says, "and I only bottle them when I think they are ready, and when we need to release some more wine."
This somewhat erratic release schedule can be quite confusing to anyone trying to figure out whether a given bottle is a current release or has been aged in bottle for some time. While he says he is working on a better system for clarifying this on the label, Saas shows me a small number on the back label above the barcode, and tells me you can always tell the year the wine was bottled from the last two digits.
Nikolaihof's wines simply represent one of the pinnacles of Austrian winemaking. Now having had the chance to taste them across three decades, I'm even more impressed with them. It may be equal parts trick of the mind and conceit of the pen to say that they possess the same timeless stillness that I felt after stepping into the quiet courtyard. But that sure seemed appropriate as I sat tasting them under the white-washed arched beams of the chapel roof, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows, echoing the crystalline flavors of the wines themselves. The word sublime just about covers it.
2010 Nikolaihof Hefeabzug Grüner Veltliner Trocken, Wachau
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a slightly yeasty nose of green apple and crabapple aromas with a grassy high note. In the mouth, flavors of crabapple and wet stones sizzle with bright acidity. Beautiful, bright. Juicy. Aged 6 months on the lees. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23. click to buy.
2010 Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Trocken, Wachau
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a slightly bread-like nose with notes of wet stone and faint green apple. In the mouth, the wine continues with a yeasty note and flavors of apple and pear. This vineyard is a contender for the oldest named vineyard in the world, planted and named in the 5th century. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $34. click to buy.
2009 Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Grüner Veltliner Smaragd trocken, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeyed apples and pears, with a deep wet stone character. In the mouth the wine has a crystalline quality, with a beautiful wet stone and green apple flavor, and hints of floral lightness. Gorgeous. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $68. click to buy.
2010 Nikolaihof Vom Stein Riesling Federspiel Trocken, Kremstal
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous pink grapefruit and honeysuckle with a hint of some leathery note in the faint background. In the mouth a gorgeous texture give way to effortless, airy flavors of honeysuckle and jasmine with pink grapefruit and wet stones trickling like a mountain stream underneath. Very long finish. Stunning. 11.5% alcohol. Dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $44. click to buy.
2008 Nikolaihof Vom Stein Riesling Smaragd Trocken, Kremstal
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of slightly yeasty bread and bright golden apple and pear aromas. In the mouth, honey and baked apple flavors mix with cold cream flavors, bright acidity and a long, juicy citrus finish. 12.5% alcohol. Dry. Bottled in 2011. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2006 Nikolaihof Klausberg Riesling Privatreserve Trocken, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of beautiful, bright lemon curd and wet stones. In the mouth, gorgeously bright wet stone flavors mix with tangerine and lemon juice amidst a crystalline minerality. Gorgeous acidity, and with a great length, this wine tastes like liquid rocks. A faint yeasty aroma lingers in the long finish. Dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Nikolaihof Steiner Hund Riesling Reserve Trocken, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones running with lemon juice straight out of a glacier that is perfumed with white flowers. In the mouth juicy lemon curd and tangerine flavors combine with pink grapefruit and a crystalline acidity. Gorgeous texture, incredible length stunning. 12.5% alcohol. Dry. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $69. click to buy.
2007 Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Riesling Halbtrocken, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples baked with brown sugar on top, plus cool honeysuckle and a stony mountain stream quality. In the mouth, bright, juicy green apple and wet stone acidity is welded to a beautiful lemonade and candied lemon peel juiciness. Beautifully balanced. Theoretically off dry, this wine does not taste sweet at all, or even half-dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2010 Nikolaihof Neuburger Trocken, Wachau
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and sweet green apples. In the mouth gorgeous sweet green apple flavors mix with bright juicy acidity. Pink grapefruit flavors linger with wet stones in the finish. Tastes slightly off dry, but technically it is not. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2009 Nikolaihof Elisabeth Tradition White Wine, Wachau
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of white floral aromas and candle wax. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful soft and fleshy texture with delicate acidity and beautiful floral and waxy flavors mixed with wet stones. This wine is technically a Gemischter Satz -- a field blend of Riesling, Weissburgunder, Gruner Veltliner, Neuburger, and Auxerrois. Juicy, flavorful. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1993 Nikolaihof Vinothek Grüner Veltliner Trocken, Wachau
Medium greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of potpourri and candied orange peel with something else crazy in there that is unidentifiable. In the mouth the wine is incredibly mouthwatering with a combination of savory and fruit flavors that are like a kaleidoscope. Salty lemongrass, kumquat juice, lemon curd, pastry cream and wet stones, with exotic spices. Stunning. Exotic. Aged for a mind-boggling 15 years in large oak casks before release. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $150. click to buy.
1995 Nikolaihof Vinotek Riesling Cask Sample, Wachau
Light gold in the glass this barrel sample smells of baked apples with cinnamon and brown sugar. In the mouth it is beautifully sexy, with an incredibly silky texture, with brown sugar, baked apples, and wet stones that meld gorgeously together. Beautiful. Dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1990 Nikolaihof Neuberger, Wachau
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and creme anglais. In the mouth, flavors of candle wax, flowers -- and oddly the scent of alpine strawberries -- mix with wet stones and a very light tannic structure that leaves a light chalkiness in the finish, along with berry and floral aromas. Extraordinary. Dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
1988 Nikolaihof Elisabeth Tradition White Wine, Wachau
Medium gold in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully nutty nose that smells exactly like an ancient book opened and held up to the nose. Hints of pine needles creep out of its pages as well. In the mouth that piney / spruce quality continues, with candle wax, old parchment, and faint citrus cream flavors. Beautiful. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1983 Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Gruner Veltliner Spatlese, Wachau
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of old dark honey, pine needles, wet stones, and sour dried lemons with hint of parchment. Gorgeous wet stone minerality and dusty library flavors in the mouth, with nut skin, lemon pith, and dried flowers. Quite beautiful and alive and gorgeous. Dry and stony. Alcohol level unknown (not on the label). Score: around 9.5.
2005 Nikolaihof Nikolauswein Trockenbeerenauslese White Wine, Wachau
Medium amber in the glass, this wine smells of sweet candied orange peel. In the mouth the wine is very thick and sexy on the tongue with beautiful candied orange and caramel flavors. Lovely acidity has a bright burst on the palate and then fades as brown sugar flavors linger for a long time. Very sweet. 70% Riesling, 20% Gruner Veltliner, and then "as many other botrytis grapes from other vineyards we can find." Aged for 4 years in barrels before bottling. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1999 Nikolaihof Süssenberg Grüner Veltliner Auslese, Wachau
Light to medium amber in the glass, this wine smells of bitter orange and Angostura bitters. In the mouth, flavors of bitters, dried orange peel and toasted nuts mix with dark honey. Gorgeous acidity, lovely balance, and fantastic minerality underneath everything. A bitter woody note adds some complexity. Lightly to moderately sweet. Aged for six years in barrels before bottling. 9.5 Score: around 9.5.
2009 Nikolaihof Gewürztraminer Trocken, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of roses and orange blossoms. In the mouth flavors of orange peel and wet stones mix with hints of different kinds of roses, and a nice delicate acidity and balance. Dry. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.
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